It may have started out life as a convent, but The Marlborough Boutique Hotel is anything but conventional.

The structure itself, built in 1901 next to St Mary’s church in Blenheim for the Sisters of Mercy, originally housed 19 nuns, also providing them with a library, music room, sewing room and a chapel.

Over time, the sisters moved out, and it evolved into a youth hangout and childcare centre. The Catholic church eventually put it up for auction and it was bought in 1994 by Mieke and Wilfried Holtrop for $10,000.

Dismantling it into five sections and moving it to its current site in Rapaura cost the Holtrops another $1,000. It was then restored with architect Sir Michael Fowler and set up as a bed and breakfast. 

In 1999, the owners added a small chapel to the grounds, built in 1911 in nearby Grovetown. They used it to host small weddings.

The property sold 10 years later to Layonie Seque and Keith Denham, who operated it as the Old St Mary’s Convent B&B.  

In 2016, the property was bought by New Zealand-born Angela Dillon, who has lived in Sydney since 1989 and founded corporate incentive agency AD+INC in 1999.

A Houston-based consortium, headed by investment management and advisory firm FCA Corp, also holds a cornerstone stake of 24.99%.

Both investors had seen there was a gap in the market for luxury accommodation in the Marlborough wine region. And while Dillon had seen herself as a “passive investor” in the property, she said it became evident early on that a lot more attention was needed to get it up and running and to bring it into the top end of the market.

After an extensive refurbishment, it was opened as a boutique hotel in 2017, offering 10 en-suite rooms that can only be described as stately. 

The chapel wasn’t ignored; it was transformed into the Chapel bar and lounging area, connected to a large outdoor fireplace. Around a hedge is also a wonderful heated outdoor pool.

The chapel, transformed into a relaxed, private getaway - overlooked by the Stephen Allwood painted Angus. (Image: BusinessDesk)

And as you'd expect, the 6.5-hectare property includes a vineyard, although it covers less than 1ha. 

After a strong start over the first two years, built largely on the North American and Australian markets, business ground to a halt after covid closed the borders.

  Making a splash in the wine country. (Image: The Marlborough)

Dillon said bookings have bounced back strongly over the past several months.

But as with other hospitality businesses, what hasn’t bounced back as well has been the availability of staff. The boutique hotel has a current personnel complement of 26, about 10 short of what it needs to provide the close attention that someone paying between $1,500 and $2,000 a night deserves. 

The festive-season rate, between Dec 23 and Jan 6, can climb by 25%.

Wine is the drawcard

The hotel's biggest magnet is being plumb in the centre of the country’s major wine-growing region.

“People tend to equate Marlborough with sauvignon blanc and, maybe, pinot noir, so they are surprised when they find us growing merlot, malbec and riesling and creating a really good, dry rosé,” Dillon said.

The wine, counted in hundreds of bottles rather than thousands, is produced by renowned Marlborough winemaker Tamra Kelly-Washington in small batches at the Coterie.

What they grow and bottle is made available exclusively in the mini-bars in guests' room and in the hotel's Harvest restaurant. Dillon said they aren't precious about serving only the local wine, and Harvest's drinks list has a wide selection. “What we say is we are a restaurant that serves wine, but we do have beer and cocktails.”


Harvest, a modern, steel addition to the main building, was established late last year – after “testing the market” with locals during covid – by building a garden deck onto the fabulous outdoor setting.

It's also now complemented by the planting of an acre of vegetable gardens. “People want to know the provenance of food, and it helps us to reduce food miles; both of those things are important.” 

Harvest Restaurant – "simple food, done really well" – operates on the garden deck. (Image: The Marlborough)

The property also creates all of its own organic compost, and the kitchen is trying to cut back on the use of plastic products.

Dillon said Harvest probably best identifies with a bistro. “We’re not fine dining and we don’t want to scare people thinking we’re silver service. Rather, it’s a nice experience, about great food, good wine and hospitality. Simple food, done really well.” 

While there were weekly tweaks to the menu during the winter months, the restaurant’s focus on seasonality means more frequent menu changes through the summer, as more regional produce becomes available.

Staples include grass-fed lamb from the Awatere Valley’s Middlehurst Station, served as a "melt in the mouth" lamb shoulder. 

Green-lipped mussels from Havelock, wild venison, Cloudy Bay clams and hand-speared butterfish also feature prominently on the menu.

Harvest is also the only Marlborough restaurant to have a Mibrasa charcoal oven, which adds a point of difference to its offering. 

A relaxed dining experience, with a view. (Image: The Marlborough)

The Marlborough Boutique Hotel,

776 Rapaura Road, Marlborough.

Phone (03) 570 5700.

Harvest restaurant:

Dinner Wed-Sun; lunch Fri-Sun.